Correction: An earlier verison of this story inncorrectly said the principle of Big Sky Cheese, Edward Friesen, is Hutterite. Friesen is not Hutterite.
A proposed cheese factory in Great Falls is stirring controversy in the community over fear of larger industrial agriculture development, including a slaughterhouse. Jenn Rowell with the independent online news outlet “The Electric” has been covering recent heated zoning board meetings about Big Sky Cheese and its parent company, the Madison Food Park. She spoke with YPR News' Jess Sheldahl.
JESS SHELDAHL: When did you realize that this project would be decisive in the Great Falls community?
JENN ROWELL: Right away, actually. Just where it was is a big piece of property and the principle, he’s Canadian and a Hutterite, [Editor's Note: Upon review, YPR found Edward Friesen with Big Sky Cheese is not Hutterite. We regret the error] and around here sometimes that causes some issues. And then just the slaughterhouse aspect really caught a lot of people’s attention. It’s coming up on two years and people are still very frustrated by the whole project.
JS: Why are so many community members opposed to a cheese processing factory?
JR: It seems that the fear is not so much the cheese plant itself -- it's the bigger project that it's a part of. And this application is a standalone application but it is also essentially the first phase of the larger food park proposal. So I think people are really worried that if it gets approved, then that means everything else will get approved, which isn't necessarily the case but there's no way of predicting that at this point. So I think there's the underlying fear of the slaughterhouse coming that everyone has really latched on to and I understand their fears but I also understand the government process and there are conditions and there are ways to address some of those fears.
JS: So why is it that the slaughterhouse specifically is the point that really starts to make people uncomfortable?
JR: I think there's a fear I hear of industrial agriculture, a lot which is always interesting to me because it exists here. And maybe also with the Canadian Hutterite [Editor's Note:Upon review, YPR found Edward Friesen with Big Sky Cheese is not Hutterite. We regret the error.] involvement, people don't seem always receptive to that. So there's a lot of unknowns, I guess, that are causing fear and that's perfectly understandable. So it's just kind of a matter of answering some of those questions for people.
JS: So has the zoning board done anything to increase public trust in this process or at least increase understanding?
JR: So they're I think starting to understand that the public needs more information to feel better and the public is coming and asking for it and giving suggestions. And I think that's really been helpful. I like seeing the public comments say, 'We want to understand this. We want to engage and we want to know what's going on,' which I think is great. The county sometimes pushes back and says well, we're only legally required to do notifications this way or share this information this way. And that's kind of been a back and forth of getting them to be a little more proactive in sharing information.
JS: This amount of public comment and public involvement, is this unusual for Great Fall or is this an ongoing trend in the area?
JR: No. I would say this is highly unusual. I go to a lot of county meetings and city meetings, really any government meeting, where I'm the only person in the room or the only non-staff member in the room or not an applicant. The county has had a couple with the projects or the food park project in general and then they also started updating their zoning regulations and people have kind of latched on to that because they see it as being associated with the slaughterhouse project in particular. But I've seen more involvement there as well, which I also think is good. When you update your zoning regulations that's the perfect time to get involved because it does impact every other project after that.
JS: What do you think is next for Big Sky Cheese in this process?
JR: Basically what comes next is the board is going to have to make a decision one way or the other on approving or denying the permit.
JS: Well thank you so much, not only the work you do, but for sharing your reporting with Yellowstone Public Radio.
JR: Of course.
JS: It was nice to have a fun talk about people getting really passionate about local government and cheese factories. It has all the elements of a good story.
JR: Oh good. I hope so.